1460 - 1513
Little is certain about the life of William Dunbar. Yet, unusually for a medieval poet, and in contrast with his older contemporary, Robert Henryson, Dunbar’s work is characterised by moments of self-reflection. While we must regard poetic self-revelation with some scepticism – especially in the Middle Ages when poets worked under the auspices of patronage – it is possible to construct an image of Dunbar from the limited historical and literary evidence of the period.
There is much debate over Dunbar’s birth date, but the consensus is that he was born around 1460, making him a generation younger than Robert Henryson, his fellow Scots ‘makar’. He appears to have been, like Henryson, university-educated, possibly taking a degree from the University of St. Andrews in the late 1470s.
Critics speculate – as a result of the information Dunbar provides in his work and the evidence of legal documents – that he was a priest and legal clerk, and poet to James IV’s royal court. The nature of his relationship with his royal patron is clear when we consider that Dunbar helped to promote James’s marriage with Margaret Tudor, the event being commemorated in his poem, 'The Thrissill and the Rois'. From his work, it is also apparent that he was a favourite of the Queen, and his poetry contains many snapshots of court life.
Life as a sponsored writer had, conversely, its negative aspects. Conventionally, a patronised court poet was forced, by financial necessity, to deliver what his patron required; to provide a voice which both flattered the monarch and endorsed the contemporary status quo. Dunbar, however, is less than predictable in his courtly role, taking opportunities to criticise the excesses of James’s position as monarch.
Dunbar’s life as a cleric was fraught, and he often bewails what he sees as his unfair treatment by James IV. During his career, Dunbar appears to have made many requests for a ‘benefice’, which was a regular income based on his priestly work, all of which seem to have been unsuccessful. Unafraid to air his distaste at this treatment, Dunbar’s corpus is sprinkled with poetic lamentations which expose his economic uncertainty.
Dunbar’s poetry is among the greatest in the Scots language. His work in the lyric is superlative, and his use of Scots is sophisticated, versatile and stylish. The self-reflection in his work reveals a sensitive and complex man. But this self-reflection is of secondary importance – whatever we know of Dunbar the man, Dunbar the poet is a virtuoso master craftsman of considerable literary genius.
William Dunbar, like Robert Henryson, belongs to the group of medieval Scots poets known as the ‘makars’, and he repeatedly refers to his composition as an act of ‘making’. While this idea of poetic ‘making’ suggests a practical literary approach, Dunbar’s work exhibits extraordinary linguistic dexterity. Dunbar asserts his role as a seemingly unpretentious ‘maker’ of verses. Nevertheless his work reveals tremendous rhetorical skill, ranging over the quietly pious, delicately lyrical and riotously bawdy. If the work of the makars is compliant with the decorum of the high, middle and low styles, Dunbar is master of them all.
Dunbar’s place as a court poet greatly influences his work, both in terms of what he is able to say and what is left unsaid. His major courtly work is ‘Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past’, or 'The Thrissill and the Rois', which celebrates the marriage of his patron, James IV – symbolised by the Scottish national plant, the thistle – and Margaret Tudor, the English ‘rose’. Dunbar’s heraldic poem is an allegory of the marriage between countries traditionally seen as enemies. While the poet fulfils his courtly role as a royal flatterer, he is unafraid to provide unsolicited advice for James:
And sen thow art a king, thow be discreit.
Herb without vertew hald nocht of sic pryce
As herb of vertew and of odor sueit
This reserved panegyric (formal and public praise) is typical of Dunbar’s court poetry. In ‘Of a Dance in the Quenis Chamber’ and ‘The Wardraipper of Venus Boure’, Dunbar celebrates the hilarity and absurdity of court life and festivity, and ‘The Wowing of the King quhen he was in Dunfermline’ criticises the king’s reputation as a philanderer.
The court context also provides a backdrop to Dunbar’s self-referentiality. In ‘My heid did yak yester nicht’, Dunbar describes the role of a headache in his inability to compose, and in ‘This waverand warldis wretchidnes’, he reflects on his petitions to James for a benefice:
I knaw nocht how the Kirk is gydit,
Bot benefices ar nocht leill [fairly] devydit:
Sum men hes sevin and I nocht ane
In ‘The Lament for the Makars’, Dunbar provides an important source for the Scots literary tradition. Through the framework of the Latin refrain, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’, translated as ‘the fear of death perturbs me’, Dunbar anxiously records the deaths of his poetic ancestors, and sadly concludes that ‘Sen he hes all my brether tane,/ He will naught lat me lif alane;/ On forse I man his nyxt pray be’.
Dunbar’s lyricism can also be thoughtfully religious, and in ‘The Ballat of Our Lady’, he reaches heights of literary invention, providing a meditative, pious poem of infinite levels of meaning:
Ave Maria, gracia plena:
Haile, fresche floure femynyne;
Yerne us guberne, virgin matern,
Of reuth baith rute and ryne.’
'The Goldyn Targe' exhibits Dunbar’s extraordinary rhetorical expertise. The poem is concerned with love, and the metaphorical assault of sensuality on the ‘targe’ or shield of reason. In the aureate, enamelled language of the high style, Dunbar effortlessly holds forth on the universals of human nature. After the narrator’s distraction by ‘lady Beautee’, he questions his conscience:
Quhy was thou blyndit, Resoun, quhi, allace?
And gert ane hell my paradise appere,
And mercy seme quhare that I fand no grace?
The poem confirms Dunbar’s proficiency in the high style.
The poet is equally skilful in the middle and low registers. In 'The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo', Dunbar’s narrator spies on two wives and a widow discussing marriage, and relates their words. The poem opens with an idealised nature scene, the ladies seeming ‘Quhyt, seimlie and soft as the sweit lillies’, but as soon as they begin to speak, we see the reality under their angelic appearances. They speak of marriage as a ‘blist band that bindis so fast’, and are less than kind about their husbands. The first wife describes her spouse as ‘ane wallidrag, ane worme, ane auld wobat carle,/ A waistit walroun na worth bot wourdis to clatter,/ And bumbart, ane dron-bee, ane bag full of flewme,/ Ane scabbit skarth, ane scorpioun, ane scutarde behind.’ This grotesque but scatologically humorous description demonstrates Dunbar’s wicked ability in the low style of poetic abuse, known in Scots as ‘flyting’. In 'The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy', Dunbar and his opponent perfect this glorious art of insult.
Dunbar is a poet before his time, of enduring importance to this day. Matchless in his range of literary expression, Dunbar perfects an exhaustive array of forms, styles and genres. With hindsight, Dunbar is a peculiarly modern poet, unusual in his context for his portrayal of anxiety and emotion – his multi-voicedness is his ‘modernity’. Although he writes in a distant historical period, his exquisite linguistic abilities combine with universal themes to create a corpus which is entirely ageless.
Primary – Best known
The Lament for the Makaris
The Thrissel and the Rose
The Tretis of the Tau Mariit Wemen and the Wedo
The Dance of the Sevin Deadly Synnis
The Goldyn Targe
The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy
Primary - Collected
The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. by James Kinsley (1979)
The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. by Priscilla Bawcutt, 2 volumes (1998)
The Makars: the poems of Henryson, Dunbar, and Douglas, ed. by J A Tasioulas (1999)
The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature 1375-1707, ed. by R D S Jack and P A T Rozendaal (1998)
[in addition to generous representation of Henryson and Dunbar, this well-annotated anthology also contains the whole of The Kingis Quair, Montgomerie’s The Cherrie and the Slae, and James VI/I’s Reulis and Cautelis]
Priscilla Bawcutt, Dunbar the Makar (1992)